How the Golden State Warriors are recreating the most devastating lineup(s) in history

How the Golden State Warriors are recreating the most devastating lineup(s) in history post thumbnail image

During the closing minutes of their unsightly 101-98 win over the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 4, the Golden State Warriors fashioned the kind of small-ball outfit they perfected during the early days of their dynasty. Though some of the cast members have changed, the “death lineup” is still a bang-up production.

The current iteration of it — Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green (with Otto Porter Jr. serving as a defensive and rebounding replacement for Poole for the final 45 seconds) — finished the game with a 20-13 run. The unit turned a four-point deficit with 5:46 remaining into a three-point advantage at the buzzer, stretching the Warriors’ series lead to 3-1.

The original death lineup, established in 2015, became an instant basketball phenomenon. Acting on a suggestion from Nick U’Ren, then a special assistant and advanced scout, the Warriors downsized. Green slid up to center, surrounded by four perimeter players — Curry, Thompson, Harrison Barnes and reserve Andre Iguodala.

During their first title run of the current dynasty, in 2014-15, the death lineup carried the Warriors, racking up a plus-15.8 per 100 possessions in 111 total minutes. The next regular season, en route to 73 wins, the death lineup was ungodly — plus-40.2. When Kevin Durant replaced Barnes, it was more of the same. Lineup data, once deep cuts produced by analytics departments, became commonplace. Pretty soon, every team sought to crack the code with their own killer lineup.

When Durant and Iguodala departed in 2019, and Thompson went down with a torn ACL, the death lineup was put on ice. Long live the death lineup.

For Golden State, 2021-22 has been in exercise in resuscitation. Curry and Green came into the season fully healthy. Thompson made his long-awaited return in January, while Iguodala returned to the Bay for another tour. Yet, to recreate the death lineup, the Warriors needed to enlist some new members. Andrew Wiggins, a heavy-minute workhouse who can slash and, since his arrival in San Francisco, shoot, was a natural addition. The Warriors had their foursome.

Unfortunately, clean bills of health for Curry, Green and Thompson never coincided during the regular season, as that trio plus Wiggins shared the floor for only nine seconds in the regular season, while Iguodala, 38, was able to play in only 31 games.

Yet as the Warriors advance deeper into the playoffs, death lineups are being reconstituted, and the early returns are auspicious. In 65 minutes, the original three, flanked by Wiggins and Poole, boast a net rating of plus-11.7 per 100 possessions. That mark would lead all NBA teams by a considerable margin, both in the regular season and playoffs. With the 6-foot-4, third-year player in Poole effectively standing for Iguodala, the new death lineup isn’t the defensive monster its predecessors were (111.2 points per 100 possessions), but at 122.9 points per 100 possessions, it’s swamping opposing defenses.

Curry and Thompson, even on the spottiest of nights, are still the stretchiest backcourt in basketball history. With Poole shooting better than 46% from 3 this postseason — and Wiggins at 40.7% is no slouch either — there isn’t a defense in the bracket that can cover that kind of ground. Forget about your gimmicky, junk defense, because Green’s vision and instincts can beat it with surgical precision.

The 2022 death lineup’s defense still requires some fine-tuning, but Green remains its catalyst. Monday’s Game 4 win wasn’t the product of pyrotechnics — the Warriors scored their last 11 points at the stripe — it was a tractor pull.

Green exhibited the kind of master class in defense that would have earned him Defensive Player of the Year had he logged more playing time during the regular season. On a crucial defensive stand in the closing minutes and with the Warriors still trailing, he took a turn on the ball. He then handled Jaren Jackson Jr. on the closing possessions. And though it would’ve been unthinkable as recently as four years ago, so did Wiggins as he used his lateral quickness to wall off the lane against multiple drivers down the stretch. So long as the Warriors have Green orchestrating the defense surrounded by size on the wings, the defense is destined to improve.

After their improved health, the Warriors’ most valuable asset is their replenished depth. It’s no coincidence that they swapped Poole for Porter during the key offense-defense sequences to close the game. At 6-foot-8, Porter gives the Dubs another like-sized defender who can guard every position on the floor and rebound — and a 39.8% career 3-point shooter.

Early in the season, the Warriors’ staff projected that Porter might be the fifth angel of death when the postseason rolled around. They love his feel and his ability to stay one play ahead of the game, because the greatest asset of the death lineup has always been its collective intelligence. Had Poole not exploded into one of the most tantalizing young guards in the league this season, Porter might be seeing more crunch-time minutes.

The Warriors shouldn’t sleep on the possibility that there might be matchups further down the road that call for Porter’s size and strength. The lineup with the core four plus Porter in place of Poole put up 2015-16 death numbers: plus-24.9 points per 100 possessions in 30 postseason minutes thus far. Bizarre as it sounds to sit Poole — and it might be — Golden State can rest easy knowing they have multiple death lineups, especially if Iguodala returns at some point.

The death lineups give the Warriors particular flexibility in a potential closeout game on Wednesday. It’s the ability for one unit to play against a speed game or another in a half-court slog like the one in Game 4, against big or small opponents, against pick-and-roll attacks or the one-on-one ball of Dillon Brooks or Jackson.

Death by fire (starring Poole), death by freezing (starring Porter), death by a thousand cuts (starring Iguodala) — the Warriors might be more lethal than ever, any which way.

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